The Pursuit of a Life Well Lived

(In a first, and certainly not a last, I'm extremely happy to introduce a guest writer on Rambleur. In his first post, dear friend Jason Gaikowski writes about his time racing in Mongolia. Despite his humility, Jason is an accomplished endurance cyclist, with a strong background in mountain biking and gravel. I hope you enjoy his words as much as I do. - Nick Legan)

It’s awkward sometimes...

...to meet someone new and trade the tales that record life’s story. A marathon or  half-Ironman elicits a wave of enthusiastic congratulation, sparking an exchange of story-in-kind that lays the foundation of common ground. Mongolia isn’t like that.

Mongolia is amazing. Mongolia is unbelievable. And sharing a story of racing a mountain bike 900 kilometers across the Mongolian steppe generates admiring congratulations and a fascinated questioning that plows the ground uncommon. People understand the Ironman; they relate to a marathon. Mongolia…? Mongolia might as well be Mars.

The Mongolia Bike Challenge

The Mongolia Bike Challenge has billed itself as the “World’s Hardest MTB Stage Race.” And yes, it’s hard. A quick stage-by-stage rundown follows:

Stage one kicked things off with the warm embrace of 2,900 meters of climbing over 113 km. That’s 9,500 ft and 70 miles over terrain that can fairly be described as “lumpy.” One rider, a former pro, felt it best to find a place for a bit of a nap before the final climb.

Stage two presented a forgiving 2,240 meters over 117 km, with all the climbing bunched into six very pitchy climbs. Many racers described this as the hardest single day race they’d ever done…

Stage three asked for 2,000 meters over 148 km with one climb early and a soul sucking crawl to a mountain top finish.

Stage four started by descending stage three’s finishing climb before demanding 2,540 meters and 175 km. This was a hard day, but they said the next day was easier.

Stage five covered 50 km of of mostly flat trail with a downhill bias and was wonderful until we climbed 1,500 meters over the next 40 km. The total of 1,730 meters and 170 km was NOT easier than stage four.

Stage six offered the gift of a 47 km time trial with less than 1,000 meters of elevation. A hard XC or Marathon race anywhere else feels like a rest day.

Stage seven finished things off with 1,486 meters over a relaxing 86 km and big climb to the finish.

Stage racing is hard. Mountain bike racing is hard. So yes, mountain bike stage racing for 900 kilometers is hard. Really hard. And totally doable.

I am not that special

Yuki, Ryan and Nicolas; national champions of Japan, Ireland and Italy. The Mongolian National team. John, who’s pro-motorcycle career predated a pro-cycling career. Those guys are special. Me?

I’m a 46 year old guy from the Midwest with a mortgage, a daughter and a bone stock Salsa. I have more airline miles than training miles and power that is generously described as “meh.”

I eat too many cheeseburgers, drink beer too often and don't floss as much as I should. 5’ 10”-ish, size medium everything, and statistically average in nearly every dimension. I am, quite literally, a reflection of everyman. I am not special.

And I conquered the Mongolia Bike Challenge.

The hard part

The hard part isn't the 900 kilometer, the 14,000 meters of climbing or the remote terrain. It's not the time, the travel or expense. The hard part isn't in the doing…

It's the deciding.

A year ago, a video popped up in my feed. It would have been so easy to ignore, but I watched it. And then the real challenge began. Can’ts, shouldn’ts and all the impish reasons why I couldn't go came rushing into my brain like a runaway avalanche. I’d missed the early-registration discount. Registration was limited and probably full. There was so much going on at work. It would be cost too much. I hadn’t been riding enough. The air travel would be miserable. What if I finished last? What if I didn’t finish? What would people think? One justification after another asking: Who was I to dare to go to Mongolia?

This is the my lesson from Mongolia: after daring to decide, not one thing was as hard as I’d imagined. And in sharing the story, I’ve discovered that an awkward uncommon ground lies between those that dare and those who don’t. Too often, we all allow can’t to quietly limit the lives we are capable of living. Let uncertainty be your guide, and make uncomfortable decisions in the pursuit of a life well lived.

 

About Jason: 

Zen-peddler seeking salt, Jason forged his riding roots in the pre-DK200 era with the Flint Hills Death Ride, The Big Loop, and a decade of "Thursday Night Adventures into Darkness." Founding member of the WUDCHUKS of Kansas City, Gaikowski's favorite units of time and distance are "a while" and "a ways." Palmares include a podium position at Dirty Kanza and successfully riding by a dead cow (twice) without noticing. 

Off to the Tour, then a tour

Monday, June 27th, 2016, 11:12am. Seated at the airport right now, about to board a flight that will connect to Paris. I'm headed to the first few days of the 2016 Tour de France. Always exciting to head to a place that I love, northern France. My first time to France was in the Brittany region and I'll be nearby in Normandy for the next week. It'll be good to flex my linguistic muscles again, eat some good cheese, drink some bad coffee and reconnect with the circus of professional bike racing. 

The energy of the Tour de France is a double-edged sword. It's hard to keep up with that much activity, especially when trying to capture some of it for consumption by online fans of the race. Much of race journalism is distillation. Comprehensively covering an event as massive as the Tour is virtually impossible, but we do our best. Check out Bikeradar.com for my work. 

Upon my return from the Tour, I'll head out on a tour of my own. Thankfully I'll be with my adventurous wife, bikepacking from Wyoming, through a bit of Idaho and then into Montana. After 550 miles of northbound travel along the Adventure Cycling Association's incredible Great Divide Mountain Bike Route we'll leave the route in Ovando and head to Missoula for the 40th Anniversary of the Adventure Cycling Association and BikeCentennial. 

It'll be fantastic to unplug after the chaos of the Tour and doing so with my partner in life/crime is an amazing added bonus. Can't wait for both the Tour and my tour. Ride on!

Nursing a gravel double century

The ebbs and flows of gravel racing could make a guy think he was bipolar. The highs I've experienced after 12 plus hours on the bike border on religious. The lows, well, we all know about the lows. They'll have you hiding in the shade of a tree along a dirt road rethinking your purpose in the world. You'll question your sanity. But finding that place can also bring an overwhelming sense of gratitude. Gratitude for your life, your family, your typically able body. Gratitude for a community that creates opportunities to find your limits (that is the tagline of this year's DK200 after all) and does so with an enormous amount of support, enthusiasm and understanding. 

My 2016 Dirty Kanza 200 was a success in many ways. I saw loads of friends. That is always a highlight for me. Cycling media, pro cyclists, industry peeps, gravel regulars were all in Emporia. It was great to catch up with several of them and just as nice to see some of them in passing. 

 Lunch with Joe Meiser (of Salsa fame) and my beautiful bride at Radius in Emporia. A good pre-race meal and top notch company. 

Lunch with Joe Meiser (of Salsa fame) and my beautiful bride at Radius in Emporia. A good pre-race meal and top notch company. 

 Eventual winner Ted King was relaxed on Friday.

Eventual winner Ted King was relaxed on Friday.

 Two of the toughest ladies on bikes, Rebecca Rusch and Kristen Legan, were happy to catch up. 

Two of the toughest ladies on bikes, Rebecca Rusch and Kristen Legan, were happy to catch up. 

 Salsa athlete, Tim Ek, and I go back to my first Dirty Kanza in 2011. Always good to see his smiling face! Avenge me!

Salsa athlete, Tim Ek, and I go back to my first Dirty Kanza in 2011. Always good to see his smiling face! Avenge me!

 Bobby Wintle, of District Bicycles and Land Run, headed to Banff for the start of Tour Divide after his Dirty Kanza ride. His Cutthroat was dialed with an Andrew the Maker frame bag.

Bobby Wintle, of District Bicycles and Land Run, headed to Banff for the start of Tour Divide after his Dirty Kanza ride. His Cutthroat was dialed with an Andrew the Maker frame bag.

 Neil Shirley had a mechanical-free Dirty Kanza. If you ever get a chance to meet this Road Bike Action editor, you'll encounter one of the nicest guys in cycling. 

Neil Shirley had a mechanical-free Dirty Kanza. If you ever get a chance to meet this Road Bike Action editor, you'll encounter one of the nicest guys in cycling. 

The Race: To be blunt, the ride was a tough one for me. I had great legs and bad guts. I rode a safe start and was eating and drinking well right up to the point where, after cresting a steep rise, I emptied the contents of my stomach roadside. Lots of fluid lost. I went from zero to eleven on the nausea scale. While I didn't publicize it, I was riding Dirty Kanza unsupported. So I carried enough food and fluids to get to the halfway point in Eureka, where I would visit the Casey's convenience store for nutrition. That meant that I had plenty of food on board and slowly began taking a nibble whenever I could manage. I set a mental timer that every 10 minutes I would take a sip of fluids and a small bite of food. I couldn't always stomach doing that, so I would re-evaluate every 1o minutes. Doing this, I got myself to mile 102.7 in Eureka and went to the store. I hadn't eaten much so I only bought a couple liters of water, some Gatorade and an ice cream. Temps were up and I wanted to stay cool. With a primarily north/south route, at the halfway point racers had to turn north into the wind. 

While the wind can be a strong nemesis, I chose to view it as a blessing, keeping me cool and focused. After eating a bit more and downing some water (typically I drink Skratch all day) I began to come around. My attitude was positive and I began working with different groups out on the road. For 20 miles, things were good. Then they weren't. For many miles after that, I had to avoid looking at the mileage, my speed, the time of day. I turned on my upbeat Dirty Kanza playlist and tuned out for a couple hours. Trying to push when I felt a small lift in my energy and conserving when needed. 

I constantly reminded myself that the wind was my friend. I had all the food and water I needed. My bike was running well, no flats and a great gear range. The weather was perfect. I was moving. I coached myself, saying that riding was the only solution. Stopping only delayed the end. Slow miles are better than no miles (my Tour Divide mantra). But push when you can. 

I crawled into the third checkpoint, in Madison at mile 162, confident that I could make it to the finish. But it was going to be a knock down, drag out battle inside my head to get there. After crossing the timing mat, I rounded a corner in Madison and saw my wife. It was a wonderfully welcome sight. She had suffered from a bad stomach and pulled the plug in Eureka and then rallied to come to Madison to support me. A banana and a small Coke from her worked a small miracle. Not the made-for-TV type miracle, but after getting them down I was able to put what power I had left into the pedals. This was miraculous after feeling like I had floated the pedals for several hours. Again I turned off the screen on my GPS that showed the numbers. I focused on the route, determined to not make a wrong turn. I nodded my head to Tom Petty, John Mellencamp, Macklemore, The Doobie Brothers, Ben Howard, Dave Matthews, Paul Simon, Pharrell Williams, U2 and others. Singing "Free Fallin'" out loud brought a smile to my face. 

I began to catch a few riders. "Good job" and "Hang in there" and "Stay strong" exchanged. And for a time, I was exhausted and moving and happy. And then another low. And in the low, I checked my computer. Only 15 miles to go. I could walk that if need be. I carried on. I couldn't eat any of the food I had on me. Couldn't really drink anything else either. Then I heard a train. And up ahead, sure enough, there were a pair of trains stopped on the tracks. A few other riders were already there. A few more arrived. I saw a friend. We chatted. Eventually the trains moved on. It wasn't a welcome rest. It was just a delay. But the time off the bike did help make the last ten miles easier. I rolled into town and crossed the finish line, thankful that I had pre-ridden the last miles of the route with Mike Reynolds, an Emporia eye surgeon who, along with his family, hosts me and Kristen each year. I hadn't beaten the sun. I hadn't beaten my 14-hour goal, but I had beaten one of the lowest calorie days in my ultra cycling experience. I had nursed my way across the line. Success.

Better Training Through Adventure

Intervals can make you strong. Sprints can make you fast. But only adventure can make you tough and determined. Sitting on a trainer grinding out the hours requires a certain mental fortitude (one I'm not equipped with) but pushing a loaded bike up a rocky quasi road in the rain, four hours into a ride builds a real world resilience that indoor workouts cannot match. 

Now to be perfectly clear, I do intervals. I have a power meter and even wear a heart rate strap on most rides. I do sprints and a few times a year I grind out the hours on an indoor trainer. Training smart has its rewards. But it's when I'm outside, managing my exposure to the elements, that challenges me both physically while also tasking my problem solving skills. Working out the on-bike logistics that a long ride requires is much of the fun for me. 

We all get them wrong from time to time, but hopefully we also learn from those experiences. It's easy to be once bitten, twice shy and this sometimes leads to overcompensation. A good friend who helped introduce me to bikepacking and ultra racing says, "we carry our fears." He means that if you fear the cold, you'll probably carry too much clothing. Is the dreaded bonk your worst enemy? This makes overloading on food a possibility. 

After years on the bike, doing long events you come to better understand the risk/reward, speed/comfort relationship. The give and take of those aspects of cycling can be tricky. They can even change from one event to the next, one year to another. Those ratios are highly personalized too. What works for me will not, necessarily, work for anyone else. 

A trap that I once found myself in was reading account after account by other people about a particular event, the Tour Divide. Now, I certainly gleaned some great tips and tricks. It helped to challenge my approach to it all. But like all advice, you need to consider the source. And if you don't know the person doling out the help, it's hard to gauge its usefulness for you until you go out into the world and test it. 

So get out there. Don't be afraid to be a little uncomfortable. Take precautions, but a few nights of bad sleep only a few hours' ride from home is quite a bit better than three weeks of bad sleep because you didn't do your homework. If something went wrong, adjust it. Take notes if that's your process (it's certainly mine). But also get out there with new people. They can teach you and you them. 

There is no substitute for experience. The doing of something is the only way to actually learn it. Thinking about the doing, brainstorming the possibilities can be helpful. But ultimately you have to go outside and figure it out. 

Howling at the Moon

I'm a day early. The full moon hits us tomorrow evening, clear skies willing. To honor our lunar queen, I've downed a few fermented beverages and I'm up later than usual. This happens. The full moon affects me, or perhaps I look for excuses to have an extra drink and stay up late.  

If nothing else, I'm celebrating a good day. I attended a tech seminar, got some decent writing down on the page, had a good phone call and managed a killer ride where I climbed a bunch and got all muddy.  

I'm also in the midst of prepping for a week of camping and bike riding in the desert with one of my closest friends. Instead of packing a laptop and charger, I'm packing my Mosaic flask (thanks Aaron) filled with a favorite bourbon, an Ed Abbey book that's new to me and all the intel I can manage on cliff dwellings and petroglyphs in the area. We're going to howl at the moon. Do man stuff. (And I'm all for the ladies doing woman stuff) We'll dream big dreams and tell bad jokes. We'll come back tired and refreshed. I can't wait. 

For love of a deadline

Much has been written about procrastination. Ways to avoid it, how it can be useful, etc. Like most, I'm not a fan of procrastination. It often leads to less than stellar results.

On the other hand, I love a deadline. I'm a planner and seeing a looming deadline on my calendar motivates me to get organized and take action. That doesn't necessarily mean sitting down with a blank Word document in front of me and grunting out an article. It may mean lay groundwork. Reaching out to a contact via Facebook or email. Making a call. The other day that meant mounting up, measuring, and photographing a half dozen tires. 

But putting the deadline on the calendar is the first step. Do it. Write it down. Put it somewhere where you'll actually see it. Make it hard to ignore. That's what gets me fired up. The work is work. Sometimes it's fun, sometimes it's not. But I'm thankful for the work. It keeps me busy and pushing my limits. I've also worked hard to put myself in a situation where I love my work. I get to write about cycling, bike products, events and people. I admit that it makes a huge difference in my attitude, but there are still times when it becomes a drag. But with that deadline out there, it's better to get started than it is to sit around on my hands. 

Getting some sun

I love seeing new parts of the world. On Monday last, I flew to San Diego with several VeloNews crew members and my wife, the lovely Kristen Legan, for eight days of bike testing. We're staying in a vacation rental home in the hills above Murietta. The riding is exceptional, peppered with steep climbs, a preserve with dirt trails nearby and good weather in January. 

While riding, I've spotted eagles, hummingbirds, a coyote the size of a German shepherd, a bobcat and a roadrunner. It's really cool to come to a new setting. Nature spotting is part of why I love long bike rides and seeing new wildlife is a thrill for me. 

The bikes have been fantastic too. With very few exceptions I've found something to like about every one of the 60-plus road, gravel and mountain bikes the VeloNews crew has here to test. For hopefully obvious reasons, the gravel bikes piqued my interest and two of them really stood out. Both the Norco Search and Pivot Vault surprised me with their trail manners, handling and spec. We're lucky to be riding bikes in this day and age as they are so versatile and capable. 

I woke up today

Ain't that grand! I threw on clothes and headed to my work area. I sat down at my desk at 7:04am after putting on the kettle to make coffee and feeding my dog, Cori. I wrote for 45 good minutes, finding the zone, and the words came, thankfully, pouring out. With the early light of the day brightening with each passing minute, I typed away, periodically researching a point online, then returning to the Word doc at hand.  

Only a couple times did my attention wander after that. Directing myself back to the article underway, i finished up an hour of work happy with the progress made. Plenty of new material and several minor revisions. 

My misses woke and while she readied herself for the day, I took Cori for a stroll. A cold, windy morning greeted us. Icy trail near our house kept me alert. Yellow snow kept my canine friend enthralled. 

Next up was breakfast. Scrambled some eggs for my lady and myself. Accompanied that with toast and some avocado. A bit of Tapatio hot sauce and the feast was complete. Soon after my gal loaded up her bicycle for a ride to her parents' place in Denver and a night's stay. (Love the adventurous spirit of Mrs. Legan). Then it was my turn to saddle up. Filled a couple bottles, pumped up the tires and threw on the layers. 

Two and a half hours later and several climbs under my belt I limped home, calorie depraved. A shower, food and now to relax. Not a bad Saturday. 

Avoiding Hibernation

It's snowing big fat flakes of the frozen stuff outside. Days like today make you appreciate a heated space, a comfortable couch, a good book and a hot cup of joe. The decision of the day is whether to succumb to the creature comforts of modern life or suit up and get out on the fat bike for some outdoor play time. There's always the trainer too. Some intensity might be a good thing. I got in my monthly 100-mile ride a couple days ago. Legs are well recovered after two busy days of working and running around getting "things" done. 

I'm running out of indoor projects, excuses that is. I've built the wheels I needed to build. The house is clean. Cars are in good working order. Need to keep writing, as always. But all signs point to going outside. Really they always do. If you read them right. Maybe a hike today. 

Not sure if everyone else has these internal discussions. My motivation for exertion, both physical and mental, has been high. Lately the question is simply what to do, which bike to ride, where to go. All very good problems to have. I'm a lucky man. Gotta get out while the bears are all asleep. Have the woods to myself. 

Gratitude (the first of many posts on the subject)

When I traveled to Emporia, Kansas in May of 2011, I was had no idea the effect it would have on my life. It was my first try at a gravel race. Though I'd ridden the dirt roads and old mining doubletracks of Boulder County and beyond for some time, none of those outings had included a number or timing. It was also my first go at a double century. The Ride Across INdiana (RAIN) had been my previous longest ride at 163 paved miles and that had been several years prior. 

I was in Emporia at the invitation of Salsa Cycles. They provided me with an entry to the race, a frameset to ride and a place to stay. The Salsa crew included sponsored riders and employees. We all stayed at a local's house (thanks Randy!) where we made ourselves at home, crashing on couches and sharing floor space. 

Among the people I met I made friends who inspire me to this day. I discovered a new tribe and a welcoming one at that. Joe Meiser, now the Senior Product Manager at Salsa, later took me on my first multi-day bikepacking trip. He had finished Tour Divide in 2009 and after hearing some of his tales, I was enamored with the idea of tackling the route myself. 

Lelan Dains lived at the house where we were staying. He volunteered to support us at aid stations. He's now a part owner of the Dirty Kanza and someone I hold in the highest regard. I can honestly say that without him I wouldn't have finished that long day of racing. His encouragement and unending enthusiasm pushed me to plumb new depths. 

Tim Ek, a Salsa athlete, helped to allay several of my fears about the distance, the roads and the amount of calories needed. I was certainly packing my fears that first year, with far too many inner tubes and energy gels strapped to my bike. The day before the race we found ourselves relaxing, watching TV when 1984's "Red Dawn" came on. It was exactly what we needed, a cheesy movie to distract us. We joked that  "Avenge me!" would be our call to each other if either of us fell victim to punctures. 

And as much as all the people I've just mentioned mean to me, it was Jason Gaikowski who, over the subsequent years, has become my brother. He worked at Quality Bicycle Products at the time. We ended up sharing floor space in a quiet loft area of the house. Jason can be a reserved guy and I wasn't sure of him at first. But we stayed in touch after the race. We headed to Utah for our first multi-day bikepacking trip with Meiser. We rode the Katy Trail as part of a two-day, 315-mile extravaganza of suffering and started the 2013 Tour Divide together. A couple years later, he acted as officiant for my wedding. He remains one of my closest friends and confidante. 

All this to say that I'm grateful for the experiences in my life and the people that I've met. The Dirty Kanza is just one of those experiences and the four fellows I mentioned here are but a small sampling of the wonderful people that have played a part in my life. I'm glad that my job at the time allowed me to head to Kansas and I'm thankful that I had the guts, or perhaps the ignorance, to attempt the race. So I encourage you reading this to take a chance, test your limits, and be open to the people you meet along the way. 

Wheel Building as Meditation

Few things rival wheel building for me as a meditative state when it comes to bike work. The focus necessary for a good build, paying attention to roundness, trueness and spoke tension simultaneously is fantastic. And the result of such labor, both mental and physical, delivers a satisfaction that never ceases to please me. 

Today I took a break from writing and emails to lace a new rim onto the rear wheel of my Harvey Cycle Works rando/adventure bike. As my fender bike it sees duty during winter months and next spring I have a few rides where it will need to be tip top. 

More on that bike soon when I do a post about my personal bikes.  

But if you've never laced and tensioned a wheel, it's worth exploring. I don't get to do it as often these days as I once did. But when the opportunity arises, I revel in the time with my trying stand, tensiometer, and spoke keys. Thankfully there are a couple more builds in my near future! 

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The sound of 365 days of opportunity knocking

I've finished 2015 with a bit of a bang. I left my PR role in early December to return to the editorial side of the fence. Motivation is high and I couldn't be more excited for the year ahead. I'm now writing for Adventure Cyclist as its tech editor and freelancing in the cycling journalism world. It's good to be back. 

I'll use this site as a venue to explore cycling, writing and life. Rambleur is something that I've built in my mind over the years but only now started building in the digital realm. I plan to cover my thoughts on motivation, passion, inspiration, philosophy and how slowing down life and spending more of it aboard a bicycle has helped maintain my happiness. 

Rambleur will hopefully also serve as a resource for cycling, gravel riding, bikepacking and act as a place for the frequent sharing of optimism and struggle.